Growing pains - The gypsies - A royal conquest - My first appearance on the music-hall stage - Fancy-dress balls - A stormy conversation with my father.
As a child, I was dreadfully spoiled by my mother; and as I grew older I became more and more unmanageable; I was wayward and extremely lazy. My brother, who was then twenty-one, had just entered the University of St. Petersburg. As for me, my parents wished to send me to a military college. I had an argument with the chaplain during the entrance examination. When he asked me for an example of one of the miracles performed by Christ, I replied that He bad been able to feed five people with five thousand loaves of bread. Thinking this was a slip of the tongue, he repeated his question. I insisted that my answer was correct and began to prove that this was indeed a miracle. He gave me the lowest mark be could, and I was ignominiously flunked.
In desperation, my parents decided to send me to the Gourevitch Secondary School which had a reputation for strict discipline; it was called "the school for failures." The principal added to his educational gifts a particular skill in taming rebellious natures and, when I was told of my parents' decision, I made up my mind to fail in the entrance examination again as I had done before. The Gourevitch School, however, was my parents' last hope, and I was unable to carry out my plan as, at their request, the principal admitted me without an examination, which was most disappointing.
What anxiety I caused my poor parents! I was most undisciplined, and any kind of restraint was odious to me. I flung myself passionately into a life of pleasure, thinking only of satisfying my desires, and impatient of any restriction of my freedom. I would have liked to own a yacht and sail the world where fancy led me. I loved beauty, luxury, comfort, the color and scent of flowers, and at the same time I dreamed of a nomadic existence, like that led by my remote ancestors.
I had, however, a feeling that a world unknown to me existed - one for which I yearned in my heart of hearts. It was adversity and the saving influence of a noble woman that at last enabled me to enter that world.
After I went to the Secondary School, my brother recognized my existence and began to treat me like a grown man. Nicholas had a mistress named Polia, a woman of humble circumstances who adored him. She lived in a small flat near our house, and there we spent most of our evenings in the company of students, artists and their girl friends. Nicholas taught me gypsy songs which we sang in harmony; at that time my voice had not broken, and I could still sing soprano. In Polia's flat we found an atmosphere of youth and spontaneous gaiety which was lacking at the Moika. Our parents' circle of friends, who consisted chiefly of officers, mediocrities and parasites, seemed deadly dull to us. The palatial dimensions of our house called for the pageantry of great receptions; the house had been designed for them. But the theater and state apartments were no longer opened save on rare occasions, and amidst sumptuous surroundings we led a dreary life confined to a few rooms. By contrast, Polia's humble dining room with its samovar, zakouskis and bottles of vodka was for us the symbol of joy and liberty. I liked the bohemian way of living, for I knew neither its inconveniences nor its dangers.
During one of the parties at Polia's flat, when everyone bad drunk a good deal more than was good for them, we decided to finish the evening by a visit to the gypsies. But as I was obliged to wear the school uniform, I knew I would not be allowed in any of the night clubs, especially those where the gypsies sang.
Polia had the bright idea of dressing me up as a woman, and by the time she had finished with me not even my best friends would have recognized me.
The gypsies lived in the suburbs of our great cities, in a locality called Novaia Deresvnia in St. Petersburg and Grouzini in Moscow. Novaia Deresvnia was situated in a district known as The Islands, for the many canals of the Neva made it quite an archipelago.
The gypsies lived in an atmosphere of their own, as characteristic as their copper-colored skins, ebony hair and blazing eyes. The men wore brightly-colored Russian blouses, long-sleeved black caftans embroidered in gold, baggy trousers over high topboots, and wide-brimmed black hats. The women's dresses were always brightly colored; they wore very long, full, gathered skirts, shawls over their shoulders, and scarves on their heads tied at the nape of their necks. In the evening, when they appeared before the public, their costumes were the same but made of richer materials, with the addition of barbaric ornaments such as necklaces of sequins, and heavy gold or silver bracelets. All gypsies have a beautiful supple walk, and all their movements are extremely graceful. Some of the women are very beautiful, but they are fiercely proud and tolerate no liberties unless accompanied by a promise of marriage. The gypsies led a patriarchal life, faithful to their own traditions: no one visited them in search of a clandestine love affair; they only came to hear them sing.
They entertained their guests in a large room furnished with divans set around the walls; small tables, some armchairs and a few rows of chairs occupied the center of the room. These were always brightly lit, for the gypsies did not care to sing in semi darkness. The expressive mimicry which accompanied their singing and increased its charm needed a lot of light. Habitue's ordered champagne and called for their favorite choruses and singers,
Most of the gypsy songs have been handed down by oral tradition; each generation has transmitted them to the next from remote times. Some are sad, sentimental, nostalgic; others are filled with a kind of frenzied gaiety. When a drinking song was sung, a gypsy woman passed through the audience bearing a silver tray on which were glasses of champagne, and each person present had to drain one.
Night and day, without interruption, chorus followed chorus, although occasionally a gypsy dance was performed as an interlude; the clicking of heels that stressed the rhythm of the music added to its charm. The peculiar atmosphere created by the singing and dancing, and by the beautiful primitive women, stirred the soul as well as the senses. Everyone fell a victim to their spell. Some visitors who came for a few hours stayed for days and spent fabulous sums in the place.
The gypsy singing was a revelation to me, for I had never before heard it; although it had often been described to me, I had never expected it to be so fascinating. I realized that under its spell one could easily squander a fortune.
I also realized that my disguise allowed me to go wherever I chose, and from that moment I began to lead a double life: by day I was a schoolboy and by night an elegant woman. Polia dressed very well and all her clothes suited me to perfection.
Nicholas and I often spent our holidays abroad. In Paris we stayed at the Hotel du Rhin, Place Vendome, where we had a small flat on the ground floor. By stepping over the window sill we could go in and out without having to pass through the hotel lobby.
One evening there was a fancy-dress ball at the Opera and we decided to go, Nicholas in a domino and I dressed as a woman. To while away the first part of the evening we went to the Theatre des Capucines and sat in the front row of the stalls. After a while I noticed that an old gentleman in a stage box was eyeing me persistently. When the lights went up for the interval I recognized King Edward VII. My brother, who bad been smoking a cigarette in the foyer, came back laughing; he told me that he had been accosted by a most dignified person with a message from His Majesty who wished to know the name of the lovely young woman he was escorting. I must confess that this conquest amused me enormously and greatly flattered my vanity!
I haunted cafe-concerts and knew most of the popular tunes of the time and could sing them in a soprano voice. Nicholas conceivcd the idea of turning this talent to account by getting an engagement for me at The Aquarium, at that time the smartest cafe-concert in St. Petersburg. He knew the manager personally, went to see him and offered to let him hear a young Frenchwoman who sang the latest Parisian songs.
On the appointed day, dressed in a gray tailored suit, fox fur and large hat, I saw the manager of the Aquarium, and went through my repertoire. He was delighted and engaged me on the spot for two weeks.
Nicholas and Polia saw to my clothes. They ordered a dress of blue tulle embroidered with silver, and a headdress of ostrich feathers in several shades of blue. To complete the effect I wore my mother's well-known jewels.
Three stars took the place of my name on the program and this intrigued the public, When I came onto the stage, blinded by the spotlights, I was in such a panic that for a few moments I felt completely paralyzed. The orchestra struck up the first bars of "Paradis du Reve," but the music seemed faraway and indistinct. A few kindly people among the audience on seeing my agitation tried to encourage me by applauding. I finally pulled myself together and sang my first number, which was received very coldly. However, the next two songs, "La Tonkinoise" and "Bebe' d'Amour," had an enormous success. The last one roused such enthusiasm that I had to repeat it three times.
Nicholas and Polia waited for me in the wings, greatly excited. The manager suddenly appeared with a huge bouquet of flowers and warmly congratulated me. I found it difficult to keep a straight face, so I thanked him as best I could, gave him my hand to kiss and dismissed him hastily.
Strict orders had been given that no one should enter my dressing room, but while Nicholas, Polia and I rolled on the sofa in convulsions of laughter, flowers and love letters poured in. Officers whom I knew very well asked me to supper with them at The Bear. I longed to accept, but Nicholas expressly forbade it and took me, with all our friends, to finish the evening with the gypsies. My health was drunk at supper, and I was finally obliged to stand on a table and sing to the accompaniment of guitars.
I appeared six times at The Aquarium without a hitch, but on the seventh evening I saw some friends of my mother staring at me through opera glasses. They recognized me from my likeness to my mother, and also knew the jewels I was wearing.
And so the scandal came out. My parents made a terrific scene, but Nicholas loyally took the blame and said it was all his fault. My parents' friends and the companions of our bohemian life were sworn to secrecy. They kept their word and the affair was hushed up. My career as a cabaret singer was nipped in the bud, but I did not give up the disguises which provided me with such delightful amusement.
At that time, fancy dress balls were the rage in St. Petersburg. I excelled in the art of disguising myself, and owned a collection of very beautiful costumes, both men's and women's. For a fancy dress ball given at the Opera, I had faithfully copied the portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne. The cappa magna, its train carried by two little Negroes, won me a real triumph, Another ball ended in a tragicomedy. I went as the Allegory of Night, in a sequined dress, and with a diamond star in my wig. On such occasions Nicholas, who distrusted my fertile imagination, always came with me or had me watched by reliable friends.
That evening, an officer in the Guards, who was a famous Don Juan, courted me assiduously. The officer and three of his friends offered to take me to supper at The Bear. I accepted in spite of the risk, or rather because of the risk, which thrilled me immensely. Seeing that my brother was flirting with a masked lady, I seized the opportunity to slip away.
I arrived at The Bear escorted by my four officers, who engaged a private room. Gypsies were sent for to create the right atmosphere; and under the influence of the music and the champagne, my companions became very enterprising. I was holding them off as best I could, when the boldest of them crept up behind me and tore off my mask. Realizing that disaster was imminent, I seized a bottle of champagne and hurled it at a mirror which was smashed to pieces. Taking advantage of the general shock caused by what I had done, I leapt to the door, switched off the lights and fled. Once safely outside, I hailed a coachman and gave him Polia's address. Then I remembered that I had left my sable cape at The Bear.
On an icy winter night, a diamond-bedecked young woman in a ball dress passed rapidly through the streets of St. Petersburg in an open sleigh. Who could have identified this madwoman with a boy belonging to one of the most respectable families in town?
My pranks could not be concealed indefinitely from my parents. My father sent for me one day. As he never summoned me except for matters of great importance, I naturally had some misgivings. And, sure enough, when I entered the room he was livid with rage and his voice shook. He called me a guttersnipe and a scoundrel, adding that people like me were not fit to breathe the same air as honest folk. He declared that I was a disgrace to the family and that my place was not in his house but in a Siberian convict settlement. Finally he sent me out of his room. The door banged so violently that a picture on the wall crashed to the ground.
I stood still for a moment, aghast at this outburst. Then I went to my brother.
Seeing me so depressed, Nicholas tried to cheer me up. I took advantage of this to unburden my heart, and reminded him how vainly I had several times sought his support and advice, particularly after my encounter with the Argentinean at Contrexeville. I also reminded him that it was he and Polia who had first thought of disguising me as a woman, for their own amusement, and that this had been the beginning of my "double life." Nicholas had to admit that I was right.
Later on, when I was old enough to take an interest in women, life became even more complicated. Although I felt much attracted to them my numerous love affairs never lasted long because, being accustomed to adulation, I quickly tired of doing the courting and cared for no one but myself. The truth is I was a horrible little beast. I liked to be a star surrounded by admirers. It was all great fun, but I did enjoy being the center of attention and doing whatever I liked. I thought it quite natural to take my pleasure wherever I found it, without worrying about what others might think.
I have often been accused of disliking women. Nothing is further from the truth. I like them when they are nice. A few among them have played an important part in my life, and especially the one to whom I owe my happiness. But I must admit that I have met very few who answered to my ideal of womanhood. Generally speaking, I have found among men the loyalty and disinterestedness which I think most women lack.
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